While studies tend to confirm that no sudden stroke of good or bad fortune can shift your basic level of happiness much, from the results of this study it does seem that taking a few minutes a day to note specific things we are grateful for, as opposed to hassles and random things, can up baseline happiness by a full 25%.
List five things that you are grateful for today. If you do this regularly, a study by R.A. Emmons and M.E. McCullough (2003) [Full text PDF] suggests that your happiness ‘set-point’ can increase. While studies tend to confirm that no sudden stroke of good or bad fortune can shift your basic level of happiness much, from the results of this study it does seem that taking a few minutes a day to note specific things we are grateful for, as opposed to hassles and random things, can up baseline happiness by a full 25%.
Happiness was measured in the study as being optimistic about the future, feeling better about your life and doing almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week than those who noted hassles and random events. Later studies by the same researchers eliminated the effect of thinking that you are better off than others, and investigated the experience of people who were suffering from chronic pain, whose happiness also increased at a similar rate, a key measurement being quality of sleep.
I have certainly found that it works. What I pay attention to, grows. While this is not a reason to neglect difficulties which need attention, it is a necessary counterbalance to what feels like a natural tendency to overlook so many good things in my life. I picked up the habit and introduced it to a private internet board which I visit daily. I noticed that the effect seems to increase when the notes are shared. The exercise creates a space for simple appreciation.
I made it a rule to stick to positive, that is, actual things — e.g., ‘I have healthy children’ rather than ‘my children are not ill’. It makes for less mental clutter — and stops the energy of fear hanging around. The fact of deciding to make and guard a space clear of worries creates a sense of freedom, and the fact of putting free-floating feelings, which often do not receive explicit attention, into words makes the positive things in my life tangible and real.
Often it seems that only problems are given air time, the things with which I need support, or input, and the positive sides of communication are mainly vague good wishes to others. Here the positive energy is given form and content. Often the gratitude exercise brings up a feeling of healthy interdependence with others and positive emotions towards them; for many it may bring up religious feelings too.
Worth a try?
‘Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2): 377-389.